“Killer fungus is no mystery to Afghan poppy growers
By Nushin Arbabzadah
Afghanistan’s opium producers believe they are victims of a biological attack by the United States
Reports of a ‘mysterious’ fungus that has damaged opium poppy crops in Afghanistan have hit international headlines but on the ground the ‘mystery’ is an open secret. Helmand farmers interviewed by BBC Pashto service for the early morning news programme a couple of days ago were convinced that ‘they’ had deliberately destroyed the crops.
The pronoun ‘they’ is a euphemism for US secret agents, whom farmers suspect of having sprayed the crops with the fungus. Afghan farmers have been cultivating opium poppies for a considerable period of time. This allows them to distinguishing between natural causes and artificially induced problems.
In their suspicion and accusation, Afghan farmers are likely to be ignored. The government lacks the necessary equipment to conduct proper research. The United Nations Drugs Office in Afghanistan is conducting research but the institution is no longer widely trusted. As with all other mysterious incidents in Afghanistan, this story too is likely to be lost and forgotten in the fog of war.
When the report of the fungus was first published, a reliable source directed the author of this article to the Sunshine Project, a now suspended non-profit organisation. In 2000, the international NGO had published a report about ‘dangerous US fungus experiments’, warning against the potentially harmful impact of the fungus on biodiversity in the target drug-producing regions.
The report said: ‘The strains of the fungi fusarium oxysporum and pleospora papveracae might infect and kill plants other than coca, poppy and cannabis in ecologically sensitive areas of Asia and the Americas.’
An indication of the potential risks caused by the use of such fungi, tailored to affect drug-producing plants, is the fact that their use was banned in the United States itself.
Further investigation into the fungi shows that their production and use is bordering on illegal. According to the Sunshine Project report, the US has created genetically modified strands of the fungus, and this, in turn, means that the product can be classified as a biological weapon.
Farmers in Afghanistan might regard the disease affecting their crops as artificially induced but they are probably unaware of the manner in which the crop samples were in all likelihood collected. To trace the probable route of sample collection leads us to a BBC Panorama programme entitled Britain’s Secret War on Drugs, broadcast in 2000.
The report takes us to Uzbekistan, to a Soviet laboratory that was set up to conduct research into biological weapons. The laboratory was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union but resumed operation with funding provided by US and British governments. It was in this laboratory that (…).”